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Where has the wrecking gone?
Talk radio lit up after the Coca-Cola 600 with fans asking, "What’s wrong with the racing?"
If wrecking is your style of racing, then this Sprint Cup season might not be for you.
NASCAR on FOX brings live coverage of the Sprint Cup race at Dover International Speedway on Sunday. The green flag drops at 1 p.m. ET, with coverage on FOX beginning at 12:30 p.m. ET.
With the exception of restrictor-plate racing and events on tracks smaller than 1.5 miles, competition can be characterized as “clean and green.” Even the race at Richmond — 400 miles on a 0.75-mile oval — featured no multicar incidents. How is that possible on a short track? Especially when nine of the 15 cautions in the previous Richmond race involved two or more drivers?
But fast forward to Sunday's Coca-Cola 600, which set a record for the fastest time for the event, at 3 hours, 56 minutes, 14 seconds, breaking the previous record of 3:56:55 set in 1995. There were only five cautions for 23 laps, four for debris and one when Travis Kvapil hit the wall in Turn 4. The last time there were that few cautions in the May race at Charlotte was the 1999 Coca-Cola 600.
Denny Hamlin, who finished second in the 600 and acknowledged that he used up his equipment too early in his attempt to beat winner Kasey Kahne, initially joked that the catalyst for the record time was “everybody is trying to make last call”.
Then Hamlin became serious on risk vs. reward.
“Bottom line, I think everyone is so concerned with points nowadays,” Hamlin said. “You know if you wreck and you finish in the 30s, you're going to take 10 races to get that back. I think everyone's just a little bit more patient on restarts, as crazy as that sounds. It's just not as wild on restarts as it used to be a couple years ago.
“Everyone is minding their Ps and Qs, trying to get the best finish out of their day, knowing the one thing you can't overcome in a race is a crash.”
So has the Chase for the Sprint Cup changed the complexion of NASCAR?
Certainly, that’s one component. The pressure placed on the drivers from owners and sponsors to make the Chase has grown since NASCAR’s playoff system was announced after “Mr. Consistency,” Matt Kenseth, produced just one win in his run to the 2003 Cup title. Qualifying for one of those 12 Chase berths can be the difference between receiving a hefty postseason bonus and losing a sponsor when a driver becomes an afterthought for the final 10 races of the season.
When the Car of Tomorrow was introduced in 2007, it was “a tremendous handful to drive,” according to Hamlin, which resulted in “some wrecks because of it, especially on restarts.” In the past five seasons, since the car was phased into the Cup series full time, teams and drivers have acclimated to its nuances. Plus, Goodyear introduced a much sturdier tire during the past several years that well outlasts most fuel runs. The days of drivers drawing cautions because of blown tires are nearly extinct. And we all know that cautions breed cautions.
Because of the economy, not only are there a lack of rookies entering the Sprint Cup ranks but start-and-park teams are on the rise. Six cars — nearly one-seventh of the field — were in the garage by lap 90 at Charlotte. With fewer cars and better drivers on the track, the possibility for peril diminishes.
Third-place finisher Kyle Busch believes the current aerodynamic package has made the cars more comfortable.
“Typically," he said, "these cars have to be a little bit tighter. It's not as easy to go into the corner and back one in like it used to be with the old car.”
The slight changes to the side skirts that NASCAR implemented for the Charlotte races appeared to make it easier for drivers to pass other competitors. The race Sunday featured 31 passes between 11 drivers — considerably more than on any intermediate track this year.
Still, NASCAR is addressing the racing on 1.5-mile tracks. They must since intermediate tracks make up one-third of the schedule and half of the Chase races. And with a new car coming for 2012, the dynamic of racing will likely change again.
But could it be the racers are just getting better?
“You got the best drivers in the world out there each and every weekend,” Busch said. “We all feel like we know what we're doing. We don't have to run over each other anymore to pass. That's why it's a good, clean race.”
A clean race is something fans are not likely to see this weekend at Dover International Speedway, a track that hasn’t featured a caution-free Cup race since Bobby Allison won driving a Holman-Moody Mercury in the 1971 Mason-Dixon 500.
Here are 10 topics we’ll be watching at the Monster Mile and beyond:
1. Sweet 16
Kasey Kahne became the 16th driver to win under the Hendrick Motorsports banner. From the time Kahne signed to drive the No. 5 Chevrolet, it wasn’t a matter of if he would win but when. Once he and crew chief Kenny Francis learned the cars and the systems at Hendrick Motorsports, there was no doubt, this team would be a contender. What Kahne and Francis accomplished as a lame-duck team at the now-defunct Red Bull Racing was remarkable. And with a leader as solid as Francis, Hendrick Motorsports will be stronger for the addition.
2. Sneak attack
Roush Fenway Racing never has been known for its flash. However, Jack Roush’s veteran Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth are on top of the point standings, with the No. 17 crew trailing by only 10 points. All three cars finished in the top 10 at Charlotte, and Biffle, Kenseth and Carl Edwards have six wins among them at Dover. Don’t be surprised to see the RFR drivers in contention on Sunday.
3. Dynamic duo
Oh, the blue sky ahead for Joe Gibbs Racing with Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch leading the roster. Yes, Hamlin’s shown periods of inconsistency as he and Darian Grubb get acquainted but as they jell, expect the No. 11 team to be title contenders once again. As for Busch, Gibbs may have forced him to cut back on his racing but nothing can extinguish his fire — this kid has the most potential in NASCAR.
4. Junior achievement
Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s sixth-place finish was his seventh top-10 finish in the past eight races and his ninth top 10 of the season. He’s the only driver to have completed every lap this season and has an average finish of 8.2. Although Earnhardt dropped to fourth in the point standings, 18 points behind Biffle, he’s having his best season since he came to Hendrick Motorsports. And, yes, that win can’t be far behind.
5. Training wheels
Danica Patrick finished 30th in the Coca-Cola 600, five laps off the pace, after starting 40th. Now, this would be quite an accomplishment if the 12 of the 13 drivers behind her had not experienced mechanical issues of one form or another. But perhaps another way of viewing the result is that she finished two positions behind Bobby Labonte, three positions behind Kurt Busch and only five positions behind her boss Tony Stewart — all former champions. One thing is certain: Driving the Cup cars is helping with her Nationwide Series effort.
6. Speaking of Stewart
Despite his run-in with Brad Keselowski on pit road, Stewart was never a factor at Charlotte Motor Speedway en route to finishing 25th. He has been solid on short tracks and won at Fontana, but since his victory at Las Vegas, his best finish on an intermediate track was 13th at Kansas. Stewart hasn’t won at Dover since his sophomore season (2000) and had an average finish of 27th at the track last year. Fortunately, his current crew chief, Steve Addington, led Kurt Busch to the win at the Monster Mile in the fall. Stay tuned.
7. Is the 22 car cursed?
First Kurt Busch, now AJ Allmendinger. It seems that the original brew crew has lost its fizzle since becoming the No. 22 team. How many mechanical failures will Dinger have to endure before changes are made? And there has been a laundry list, including at Bristol and Kansas, where Allmendinger was dominant in the early stages. After leading 54 laps at Bristol, the driver warned crew chief Todd Gordon of an issue looming, which resulted in a loose wheel. The secondary throttle-body linkage failed after AJ led 44 laps at Kansas. He led one lap at Las Vegas before the fuel system failed. And on Sunday, the No. 22 Shell Dodge was running in the top 15 when Allmendinger reported he had no brakes. For the team, it was the second consecutive 33rd-place finish row and the No. 22 is now 25th in the owner points. Detroit, we have a problem.
8. Back on track
Jeff Gordon posted his first top-10 finish on Sunday since Texas Motor Speedway — the seventh race of the season. Gordon started 23rd but had moved up to the top 10 in the first 23 laps. He finished seventh. Gordon remains 23rd in owner points. However, Gordon has enjoyed success at Dover in the past with four wins, 14 top-five finishes and 21 top-10 finishes in 38 starts.
9. Taming the monster
With six wins at Dover International Speedway, Jimmie Johnson is always a threat on the Monster Mile. Although the defending pit crew challenge winners fumbled on Sunday night at Charlotte, with J.J.’s recent success, don’t be surprised if the No. 48 Chevrolet is a factor in the 400.
And a shout out to Dario Franchitti on his third Indy 500 win and emotional tribute to Dan Wheldon on Sunday. Just imagine how competitive Chip Ganassi’s NASCAR’s teams would be if the owner had that much passion for stock cars?
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